Friday, April 14, 2006

I Have Been Wet for 72 Hours

(Which means I am now adding a fungus to a list which already includes cuts, bruises, cuts with bruises, rashes, and rashes with cuts and bruises.)

The evening after the orphans and the octagenarians drenched me, I went to one of the Nong Khai temples to help dress "the car" which turned out to be a flat bed truck / parade float. We loaded four massive, seated, gold-leafed Buddhas onto the truck and lined them up facing front -- they, and the Buddhas on the other "cars" are clearly the stars of the event. The throwing of water is ostensibly to wash the Buddha images as you go into a new year. (The vast majority of water of actually thrown at whomever attracts the eye of the average water-thrower. Someone as attention grabbing as, say, a 200 cm tall white guy in the middle of a crowd of short Thais.)

After placing the Buddhas, I tied blocks of floral foam all around the base of them, as well as a huge round trellis at the back of the truck, while the temple Buddhas and their helpers prepared all the flowers, and then placed all of the flowers beautifully. We also placed, just behind the cab of the truck on either side, huge barrels of water, so the float riders would have ammunition. The evening would have qualified as rather dry, only a few water pistols -- most of the water throwing stops at sunset -- had it not been raining at the time.

The next day was hot and sticky, my sweat was already sweating in the few minutes before the ceremonies began. We started at 6 am, lining up outside the largest Wot in Nong Khai, everyone with platters full of individually wrapped food, and after the playing of the National Anthem the monks walked down the line with their bowls out and everyone filled their bowls with food. The live on just donated food -- officially they can't handle money -- and this ceremony is a big start to the Songkran festival. This all sounds rather orderly when I describe it, but you should instead imagine total chaos. Bodies pushing in from both sides of a narrow street; arms thrusting out holding juice boxes and dirty wads of unwrapped sticky rice; people kicking their shoes off to be shoeless when they put food into the bowls; the monks barely managing to squeeze through the tumult, tossed this way and that, as their helpers (handlers) push back into the crowd and occasionally scooping the contents of the bowls into big plastic bags so there is room for more single wrapped marshmallows and whatever those orange squares were that I was try to place rather than toss into the bowls. At one point I was definitely passed by a money tree: some kind of plant that had been speared with hundreds of chopsticks, a bill wedged and rubber banded into each stick. And a money goat as well went by, some kind of paper mache goat with the porcupine treatment of tattered baht notes. All in all, it was total chaos. Or so I thought. Chaos actually came later, after a quick and still comparatively dry breakfast.

Back at the temple, the temple workers, largely ignored by the monks, went through a long process removing the huge gold Buddha from the center of the room and lifting it on massive bamboo poles down and out of the building, and into a parade boat of sorts prepared for it in front. Meanwhile, the crowd outside of the temple, formed themselves into the definition of potential energy. The Buddhas would be walked around the temple, clockwise, three times before leaving off as the head of the parade, and all the way around the temple the people prepared themselves. Three other volunteers and I looked impotent standing the four 1 gallon buckets of water. All around us the way was packed with Thais, everyone with trash cans of ice water and hoses running off down alleys and water cannons, and, oh yes, two fire trucks -- the tanker kind with hundreds and hundreds of gallons of high pressure water at the ready. Everyone stood behind and these massive supplies of water and stared each other down across the sidewalk the Buddhas would be carried down. A few small children wandered around shooting their water pistols, but the true chaos was obviously lying in wait. From the east side of the temple we heard a massive cheer. The Buddhas were started their first trip around the temple, and going the opposite direction. I looked around me as everyone leaned in, but nobody touched the water. Katrine, a Danish volunteer splashed me with a little of her water, and we laughed, but everyone else lay in wait. The noise of chanting and screaming and cheering and splashing began to move around the temple and approach us.

And then they rounded the corner. A hundred men at least, in a tight and sopping wet scrum, holding the bamboo poles with one Buddha, and then another scrum and another Buddha, the whole crowd surrounded by soldiers forming a ring, hand in hand, to thrust the crowd apart and make sure the men had room enough to pass through. Some phenomenal display of military might mixed with unbelievable fraternity antics. And as they moved, ever so slowly, forward, the water was thrown. Buckets and buckets of it. I can't imagine how the men nearest the middle could even breathe. And bottles of perfume, like Tabasco bottles again, were shaken and splashed across the crowd. Wedged in between the scrums were more people, following along the circular parade, throwing water back into the crowd. We were all sopping wet in seconds, and after the last Buddha passed, we all paused, 1 minute, 2 minutes, and then they came again and the water again from in front of me and behind me and on either side. We had to run between passes of the Buddhas to a nice family we had met with huge trashcans filled with ice water who let us fill up again in exchange for dousing us with a few gallons. But it was worth it. Nam Ken, ice, was definitely the ammunition of choice.

After the three rounds of the temple, the crowd began to disburse, and most of us didn't have much water left. I found a spigot and filled up again to dump another gallon on Katrine, but there were only a few buckets and waterguns in action as the 5,000 or 10,000 of us made our way off the temple grounds. The other volunteers and I were all together when we reached a gate, a narrow gate, everyone had to pass through. A bottle neck. A laughing Thai woman spotted us; we did stand out after all. And as we waited 4 minutes or so to get through the gate she hit us with bucket after bucket of water. Thirty or forty gallons of water thrown, one after another, as we laughed and tried to escape.

Even our eventual escape wasn't quite what we expected. Through the gates to our bicycles and then the ride home. We had to get there to catch a tuk-tuk to Lan's house, but the main street had become a war zone. Crowds along both sides of the road throwing water, and jammed traffic going both directions, every vehicle a pick-up truck and every pick-up truck had a handful of people and a couple trash cans or metal drums of water. The trucks threw water at each other and down on the crowds at the street. The crowds on the street would dip buckets into kiddie pools of ice water and through them back at the trucks. Riding our bicycles we were beset on all sides. Bins and buckets and tubs of water would hit me coming from any and every direction. My bicycle was pushed to and fro in the onslaught and I could hardly steer. Motorcycles received the same treatment, and the trapped souls in tuk-tuks received a fearsome barage. I would jump off my bicycle with my bucket and fill it up in someone's trash can just to hit them directly in the face with the entire load. And they would return the favor. And everyone from teenagers to senior citizens would tell me to stop yelling, "hello! hello!" and then come up to me and rub talcum powder, or a mud of talcum and water, all over my face. When it got into my eyes I just had to wait a moment and bucket full of water would wash it away.

At this point, of course, the parade had not yet begun.... The volunteers who had painted with me, and Sabine -- we all loaded ourselves into a tuk-tuk and road down the highway to Lan's house to take part in the ceremony of washing her Buddhas. We carried them outside and placed them on a table, perhaps 40 in all, large and small, and then poured a mixture of water and perfume and 4 kinds of flower petals all over them. With the requisite lighting of incense as well, of course. And then we ate a quick lunch of noodles, and returned to Nong Khai (perhaps 5 km away) for the parade, soaked by passing trucks the whole way. Passing trucks coming into Nong Khai to join the celebration.

The parade looked just like our bike ride earlier, but, well, more so. Drunken celebrants by now offering beer and unknown home made hooch and whiskey. And talcum powder on my face, over and over and over again. I was asked and asked and asked something in Thai I couldn't quite figure out. ("Pom Pued Thai Dai Nid Noi. Pued Cha Cha Khrup," I would say to no avail.) I think it was the rough equivalent of, "Will you be my valentine?" but I really can't say for sure. They definitely said it with those drunken valentine eyes, though. And of course water. The Thais loved that I knew the words "Nam Ken" for ice, which I'd scream (squeal?) whenver I was hit with ice water and they'd laugh and clap me on the back and say, "Nam Ken! Nam Ken!" The volunteers and I, We all walked through town, up and down the main streets, to see it all, and everyone loved us. They loved everyone. Teenage boys would jump off trucks in motion to run up to us and hit us with powder, then jump back on the trucks to throw buckets of water at us. There was always at least a water gun hitting you from somewhere -- never a moment when you weren't getting wetter rather than dryer. It was, I can only say, total chaos. Total, total chaos. I tried and tried to find the actual "parade," meaning the part with the floats and the Buddhas, but trucks drove in both directions and the river that was the street was impossible to read, so I just wandered through it, meeting people and trying to drink as little of the undoubtedly dirty water as possible. (My throat is still sore, who knows from what?) And finally I spotted a float, a block away, going the wrong direction. I chased it, my blue bucket clutched in my hand, only pausing occasionally to return a particularly egregious barage. And I passed that float and then another and another, looking for mine. I finally found it. I wanted to ride and the Monks had offered.... But when I reached it, it was definitely full. The young monks threw some water at me. Had me empty my bucket into theirs and then gave me the water dripping off the Buddhas. I splashed that at them and then got more. We laughed and they gestured to the truck, but I couldn't see a spot. And, to be honest, I was exhausted.

I think it was around 4 pm. I didn't have a watch, of course. And I realized I had the keys of the other volunteers, who I had lost in the race to catch the floated Buddhas, because I was the one with a ziploc bag in my pocket, so I decided to make my way back to the house and make sure they weren't waiting outside. Which, of course, they were. Looking more strangly and exhausted than I was, and it hit us even harder an hour later. None of us could move the rest of the day and evening. We lay there remembering it is possible to get heat stroke while drenched in water. We could still hear blaring music and screaming and laughing from the main road as we lay there on the terrace, unmoving. We all had headaches, and plain aches, and I think everyone's throat hurt.

I crawled into bed at 10 pm. I think I ate a little something, but I can't quite remember. Oh, yes, a ham sandwich from a nearby german place run by a german expat. After dark we all braved the water to get there and eat something, and didn't hit many buckets of water on the way. A couple only.

The next day, still exhausted and we all looked a mess. I snuck to an internet cafe to see if I had any work emails I needed to answer, but it didn't work. And Christina did her laundry, about 3 buildings away, and I went to try and get throat lozenges for everyone from the closed pharmacy on the corner. And in the middle of the afternoon I just started to laugh, and then we all laughed. Christina was coming back from putting a second load of laundry in, while we were between backgammon games. She was dripping wet, and we all ignored it. It was so hysterically entertaining: the day was hot and clear and sunny, and we took for granted that anyone leaving the front door of our building would come back absolutely drenched. It was so obvious and predictable that we just ignored it when it happpened. You leave, you come back wet. And when I pointed it out, we all had to laugh. And eventually we all went for lunch, and came back soaking wet.


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